Sloppy Attribution or Plagiarism?

American Press Institute writer and former newspaper reporter/editor Steve Buttry recently wrote an article entitled “When Does Sloppy Attribution Become Plagiarism?

Buttry isn’t able to pull a clear and concise answer out of the question, for understandable reasons. However, he does say that while he “hesitate(s) to draw a distinction between plagiarism and sloppy attribution,” he agrees to do so. He goes on to say that “sloppy attribution is to plagiarism as manslaughter is to murder. It’s a serious offense but not as grave.”

However, the issues do not just affect the journalism world. They also directly relate to both the academic world and Internet itself.

The Difference (or Lack Thereof)

The difference between a case of sloppy attribution and a case of plagiarism is basically one of intent. For those that remember the “Five Kinds of Plagiarists” post, they are the idiots. They made a mistake out of ignorance, stupidity or accident, not out of malice.

While this makes the sloppy attributor much less of a villain, it does nothing to soothe the original author. Their work, or a large portion of it, is still being copied and reposted under another name. The intent does not change the situation.

Also, with so many true plagiarists claiming to have made “mistakes is attribution” it can be difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish between honest gaffes and plagiarists just trying to duck blame.

This causes most content creators to treat both in the same manner, something I reluctantly encourage. Since most cases of sloppy attribution can’t be distinguished from true plagiarism, it’s not worth changing strategies just to avoid hurting feelings in a handful of incidents.

However, there are exceptions.

Sometimes, It Actually is a Mistake

This isn’t to say that I haven’t found cases where honest mistakes were made and treated them differently, those cases include the following:

  • Cases where the work is quoted, either in block quote or quotation marks, but not cited.
  • Cases where the work was misattributed or listed under “author unknown”.
  • Cases where the work is neither attributed nor quoted, but ownership of the work is denied.

In those cases I do not pull out my cease and desist template or my stock DMCA notice, I send a polite letter to the Webmaster requesting correction.

However, many will note that those cases have one thing in common: They aren’t actual cases of plagiarism. There is no claim to the work involved and no attempt, direct or indirect, to take credit.

That, in turn is the core of my strategy. If someone makes an attempt, almost any attempt, to attribute the work and not take credit for it, I play nice. If they don’t, even if it is an honest mistake, I do not. Unable to judge intent I, like so many others, have to guess based upon other actions.

It’s an unfortunate situation to be put in and one that, in many cases, can be avoided.

Preventing Stupidity

Though there is no way to completely prevent people from engaging in sloppy attribution of your work, there are ways to significantly reduce it.

First, no matter what your copyright policy is, have it clearly and prominently displayed on your page. Make sure that it is easily read and understood by laypeople. The Creative Commons organization provides a wide range of copyright licenses that you can use for free.

Second, if you allow reuse of your work, consider creating a special “reuse page” that you can direct interested visitors to. The reuse page should be unique to each work and include a text box that they can copy and paste the work from.

Using a simple javascript trick you an force visitors to select the entire work, including a small byline or copyright notice. If anyone uses the form to copy the work and then hacks of the attribution later, you know that the plagiarism is not accidental. Legitimate users, meanwhile, find this to be very easy and friendly, both aiding them in reuse and comforting them that they are doing it in an ethical and legal manner.

Finally, photographs and other visual artists should consider watermarking images with small copyright notices. Though such watermarks work best at preventing plagiarism when they are placed in the center of the photograph, a small one in the corner can weed out the innocent mistakes as anyone who hacks off a watermark clearly has an intent to plagiarize.

In the same vein, musicians and videographers can use both metadata and watermarks to identify their works and prevent sloppy attribution from becoming a problem. Musicians can also add a sound byte at the end of an audio file knowing that anyone who chops it off clearly intended to steal.


In the end, sloppy attribution is a problem for Webmasters, but mainly because they fear making mistakes and handling innocent errors too harshly. Such fears can be laid to rest by looking for honest mistakes and acting accordingly. Also, preventive measures can greatly reduce both the number of potential mistakes made by others and potential for confusion.

All in all, it’s something to strive to prevent and detect, but not something to obsess about. There are much bigger problems out there.

Tags: Content Theft, Copyright, Copyright Infringement, Copyright Law, Plagiarism, Attribution, Journalism

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